Among the overwhelming array of labels appearing on our food packages, “organic” is a claim that many conscientious consumers now seek out because they believe it indicates more responsible production practices. But when it comes to meat, eggs and dairy, shoppers concerned about animal welfare need to be aware of the label’s limitations.
What Does “Organic” Mean for Animal Welfare?
In order to use the USDA Organic Seal, meat, egg and dairy producers must follow production standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Currently, these standards require that USDA Organic animals are:
- Raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors
- Fed organic feed
- Not administered hormones or unnecessary antibiotics
Studies show [PDF] that consumers also assume that animals from organic farms had exposure to fresh air, vegetation and significantly more space to move than on standard, non-organic farms. In reality, the standards do not provide clear requirements for either space or outdoor access for most animals.
As a result, some large, USDA Organic-certified producers are raising animals in conditions virtually indistinguishable from factory farming.
With the market for organic meat, eggs and dairy growing rapidly and more than 60 million animals’ lives at stake each year, the ASPCA has advocated strongly for the USDA to address this widening gap between consumer expectations and the reality on some organic farms.
What’s Happening Now?
In January 2017, following a decade of work by the ASPCA and other groups, as well as by organic farmers themselves [PDF], the USDA issued the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule (“OLPP rule”)—a substantial overhaul of USDA Organic’s animal welfare standards that helped align the program with consumer expectations by adding the following critical protections and requirements for animals raised in the program:
- Separate poultry, transport and slaughter standards
- Easy access to the outdoors
- Outdoor access requirements for all species
- Indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry
- Specific indoor enrichment requirements
- Overarching pain control requirements
Unfortunately, a small number of large producers and conventional trade groups pressured the current administration to derail the rule. As a result, the USDA repeatedly delayed its implementation and then ultimately withdrew it altogether. More than 70,000 of you spoke up against the proposed withdrawal, but the USDA went forward anyway. The ASPCA has followed this situation closely, and most recently engaged by filing a “friend of the court” brief [PDF] supporting a lawsuit filed by Center for Food Safety and other plaintiff organizations against the USDA for its improper withdrawal of the OLPP rule. The lawsuit challenges the withdrawal of the OLPP rule on the grounds that it violates the Organic Foods Production Act as well as the Administrative Procedure Act. In the filing, we argue that if the OLPP rule is not implemented, the USDA would be abandoning its responsibility for creating meaningful organic standards that would improve welfare for animals and meet consumer expectations.
Though we are encouraged by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s recent announcement indicating the USDA’s intention to reconsider animal welfare standards that were the subject of the OLPP rule, we will continue to support all efforts to reinstate meaningful animal welfare standards for animals raised under the organic program.
To stay up to date on our efforts and ensure you can take action in the future when farm animals need you, please join our Advocacy Brigade.
USDA Turns Its Back on Farm Animals: ASPCA Responds